The recent unveiling of Boat Tail confirms coachbuilding as a permanent fixture within the future portfolio of Rolls-Royce. Alex Innes, Head of Coachbuild Design, explains why this is such a seminal moment for the prestigious marque.
“Show me something I have never seen before.” Alex Innes, Head of Coachbuild Design at Rolls-Royce, remembers these words as if they were spoken yesterday, even though it was nearly four years ago. The occasion was his very first meeting with the commissioning client of Boat Tail who, together with his wife, saw a coachbuilt Rolls-Royce as the ultimate expression of their successes and accomplishments. The briefing session followed shortly after Rolls-Royce revealed Sweptail, its previous coachbuilding commission, in 2017.
Is this four-year-period that it has taken to follow Sweptail up with Boat Tail, which (at the time) prompted the contemporary coachbuilding movement for Rolls-Royce, typically the average timeline for such a unique undertaking, I ask Alex. “Typically speaking, yes, but it’s also reliant on the complexity and the scope of the individual concept,” he explains. “With Boat Tail it was directly linked to the unveiling of Sweptail as a starting point. The launch of Sweptail was somehow the catalyst in the mind of some of our most valued clients, as to just what can be achieved through this curation exercise, working together with Rolls-Royce.”
As such, Boat Tail represents a collaborative exploration of luxury, design and culture between the marque and commissioning clients. Through Rolls-Royce Coachbuild – described by the brand as “contemporary patronage in its truest form” – these clients are empowered to create potent, evocative expressions of personal taste. They (clients) are intimately and personally involved at each step of the creative and engineering processes, working in harmony with Rolls-Royce to express the nuances of their character and personality.
Historically, coachbuilding had been an integral part of the automaker’s story. In the contemporary Rolls-Royce narrative, it has informed a guiding philosophy for bespoke services. But, as Alex points out, there’s so much more to coachbuilding.
“The difference to me, really, is best described by using the analogy of a piece of artwork. With bespoke, you are working within the boundaries of a pre-existing canvas. So, you can still create something beautiful, artistic, and something that shows an element of self-expression, but you can’t change the canvas itself. With coachbuilding, you define what the canvas is in the first instance, before you then begin the process of imbuing it with your character. The scope of potential is so much greater with coachbuilding, so much more profound in the eyes of the customer.”
Rolls-Royce Coachbuild is also a return to the very roots of the brand, he emphasises, representing an opportunity for the select few to participate in the creation of utterly unique and truly personal commissions of future historical significance.
“The results become pivotal moments in time that create a future historical legacy, advancing designs which in turn define an era, extending influence far beyond the original intended purpose of a mere means of transportation,” Alex says.
For him, there are three important components when it comes to coachbuilding at Rolls-Royce: the fact that it is commissioned by a client, that the process is essentially still the creation of a Rolls-Royce motorcar, and one that is entirely built by hand.
“What we do at Rolls-Royce Motorcars, by way of commissioning modern interpretations of historic body styles, is as if you are appointing an architect to build you the house of your dreams. That is to say that you are sitting down with the architect, and understanding the possibilities of what can be accomplished, because you believe in the artistic values that an architect represents. You don’t necessarily know where that’s going to take you, but you believe in the intellect that’s already there,” he explains.
“The second is that these are still Rolls-Royce motorcars. That’s something that shouldn’t be overlooked – they are not only recognisable as Rolls-Royce motorcars, but they are commissions that further the iconography of the brand. As you can see with Boat Tail, it represents some very progressive elements that are pushing the brand into the future, that are opening people’s imagination as to what you can do with a familiar design. They represent a very progressive interpretation, particularly iconic design elements that suggestively could point to our future.”
The final, and by no means the least impressive aspect, is the hand-built component. “We achieved things and we have accomplished this purity of form in terms of the exterior body work of Boat Tail that probably would have been impossible by any other way than hand manufacturing. Industrialised techniques would certainly not have allowed us that quality of surface. For this, we pull in the ingenuity and extraordinary skills of handcraftsmanship,” Alex says.
He admits that, as a designer, this element of craftsmanship also holds particular appeal to him. “I have always been fascinated by handcraftsmanship, even though it’s a phrase that’s often misused in the modern world. I say that on the basis of we are constantly seeking out this desire to talk about handcraftsmanship and artisanship in the wider industry, but it is just not appropriate in a lot of cases.
“True craftsmanship is not necessarily just about doing something by hand, but it’s the craft that is applied. Working with the artisans in our leather shop, the artisans in our woodworking shop, and seeing how they apply that craft – and more specifically with coachbuilding, taking it to above and beyond the usual constraints – that is a massive source of personal inspiration for me, and something that I am constantly drawn to.
“It’s remarkably to think that the exterior body of Boat Tail is all hand-beaten aluminium, yet that age-old technique is fused with a thoroughly modern design. And if anything, the modern design that you see in the motorcar could only have been achieved through the techniques and the exploitation of the hand-fashioning process of metalwork. That’s a beautiful sort of fusion that speaks to me personally as well.”
Indeed, these manual techniques of coachbuilding offer new realms of design opportunity. Once the preliminary design proposal is penned by hand, the discovery of the form is enabled with a full-sized sculpture in clay, allowing hand-crafted manipulation of the expansive surfaces to perfect its shape. Throughout this process, the clients are invited to envisage the scope of the collaboration and influence its direction. Cutting-edge engineering technologies within Rolls-Royce are fused with the artistic practice of coachbuilding to exploit new possibilities. The clay sculpture is then digitally remastered, from which the buck is created on to which aluminium sheets are hammer-formed by hand – a process akin to yacht building.
At nearly 5.8 metres long, the generosity of Boat Tail’s proportion and clarity of surface present a graceful and relaxed stance. A closer look at the car reveals a front profile centred on a new treatment of Rolls-Royce’s iconic pantheon grille and lights. A strong horizontal graphic with deep-set daytime running lights forms Boat Tail’s intense brow line and frames classical round headlamps, a design feature recalled from the design archives of Rolls-Royce.
Viewed from dead rear, the body resolves in a gentle sharpening of the form. As with the front, a horizontal emphasis is established at the rear with wide, deep-set lamps – a break from the expected vertical Rolls-Royce lamp iconography. The aft deck, a modern interpretation of the wooden rear decks of historical Boat Tails, incorporates large swathes of wood. Caleidolegno veneer is applied in a feat of Rolls-Royce engineering; the grey and black material, which is typically housed in the interior, has been specially adapted to be used on the exterior, with no compromise to the aesthetic.
An explicit architectural influence is discovered in Boat Tail’s unconventional fixed-canopy roof. Adding to the sculptural form, the sweeping roofline concludes in delicate structural elements that touch down on the rear, redolent of flying buttresses.
The exterior of Rolls-Royce Boat Tail is swathed in a rich and complex tone of the client’s favourite colour – blue. The hue, with an overt nautical connotation, is subtle when in shadows but in sunlight, embedded metallic and crystal flakes bring a vibrant and energetic aura to the finish.
When it comes to specific design and engineering challenges the team were up against – in terms of complexity – Alex singles out the unique rear hosting area, the likes of which has never been seen before. “The sheer brilliance of this very beautiful area provisioned with all of the various accoutrements that you would need for al fresco dining, was remarkable in terms of its undertaking. I think what’s perhaps more profound for me is that all of it – all of the engineering effort, all of the ingenuity – was simply informed by the notion of hosting in a suitable Rolls-Royce fashion. The way that the butterfly option developed into a subtle sweeping gesture… even down to the picnic tables, the way they swing out as if they are gesturing an offer to you. That was probably the single-most challenging concept of the entire project.”
Another unique component to Boat Tail is a collaboration with Swiss watchmaker Bovet. “The clients mentioned to us very early in the project that they have three great passions in life: Rolls-Royce motorcars, horology, and fine writing instruments,” Alex explains. “So, we included a discreet area within the car for the personal pen of the client’s family to be stowed, but the most significant part was the collaboration with Bovet. The client hated having his bespoke timepieces on his wrist while driving because they are quite heavy, so we developed a way for the watch to be placed into the instrument panel with the face showing so that it becomes a functioning timekeeping element. It took three years to design a unique mechanism that causes no magnetic or other interference with the watch’s tourbillon movement.”
The instrument panel dials are also adorned with a decorative technique named guilloché, more commonly perfected in the workshops of fine jewellers and watchmakers.
With coachbuilding back in the fold at Rolls-Royce, how big is the demand, and is the next project already underway, I wonder aloud. “There are successive projects underway, and we have more interest than we can realise,” Alex admits. “And therein lies the art of coachbuilding, because some things must remain to be very, very precious in a vast ocean. We very much intend to keep it so, and it’s also what our clients are demanding of us as well.”
(Hero and featured image: Boat tail marks a triumphant return of coachbuilding at Rolls-Royce Motorcars)
This story was first published in the August 2021 issue of Prestige Thailand.
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